Woman cured of HIV with new method shows potential for others, scientists say

A stem cell transplant seems to cure the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) for the first time in a woman.

This is the third known case of HIV remission following a stem cell transplant, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) said in a news release. It’s a massive breakthrough in treating a virus that for decades was completely incurable.

The woman, who has not yet been named, joins two men who have been recovered or likely recovered from the virus, NBC News reported. However, there is still some way to go before the treatment can be widely used. It’s a risky procedure involving the destruction of the immune system, so scientists have only tried it on people with life-threatening cancers. The patient had received the stem cell transplant to treat her acute myeloid leukemia, according to NIAID.

The new treatment uses stem cells from umbilical cord blood, which are more widely available than adult stem cells, The New York Times reported. No HIV has been detected in the woman for 14 months, according to the NIAID statement, even after stopping antiretroviral therapy, a treatment for HIV.

A woman was probably cured of HIV for the first time. Above is a woman holding an HIV/AIDS awareness ribbon.
Image Bank/Getty Images

The treatment basically works by destroying a person’s immune system and replacing it with a new one, which treats the person’s cancer while curing their HIV.

“By killing cancerous immune cells with chemotherapy and then transplanting stem cells with the CCR5 genetic mutation, scientists theorize that people living with HIV then develop an HIV-resistant immune system,” NIAID said.

Experts tell NBC News that this treatment would be ‘unethical’ if tried on someone without life-threatening cancer or another qualifying medical condition because it is ‘toxic’ and ‘sometimes deadly’ .

Dr. Deborah Persaud, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and one of the study’s leaders, told the outlet that while stem cell transplantation is an exciting development, it is “still not a feasible strategy for all but a handful of millions of people living with HIV.”

The first man cured using stem cell treatment, known as the ‘Berlin patient’, had been in remission from HIV for 12 years and considered cured before his death from leukemia in September 2020, according to the NIAID. The second man, nicknamed the “London patient”, is still in remission after 30 months.

HIV attacks the immune system and, if left untreated, can lead to AIDS, making you susceptible to many serious illnesses, called “opportunistic infections,” according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). United States. While HIV and AIDS cases have declined since the peaks of the 1980s and 1990s, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that as of June 2021, there were 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States.

Update 2/15/22, 3:20 PM ET: This article has been updated with more treatment details and background information.

Update 2/15/22, 2:50 PM ET: This article has been updated with more details on stem cell therapy based on information from NIAID.

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